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Visionary feminist artist finding recognition after 50 years

Hershman Leeson Lynn
Lynn Hershman Leeson (photo by Lisa Blatt)

After five decades of making art, 75-year-old feminist and media pioneer Lynn Hershman Leeson is being discovered by U.S. audiences and her work hailed as prophetic.

Hershman Leeson moved from Cleveland to California in the early 1960s to study art at the University of California, Berkeley, but instead got involved in the free speech movement. She has been making art ever since, and now through May 21 San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is showing her first retrospective in the United States, Civic Radar, which includes drawings, sculptures, performances, installations, and videos. The show is adapted from a larger one at ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, on view in 2014. Many of the works had never been displayed before. With that show, the art world began to take notice of her.

In Civic Radar, we see how Hershman Leeson’s work explores feminism, identity, surveillance, and technology, in such pieces as Lorna (1983-84), the first artwork to use laser disc technology, allowing viewers to play an interactive story of an agoraphobic woman, choosing if she commits suicide, moves out of her small apartment, or shoots the TV; the Roberta Breitmore series, featuring a persona Hershman Leeson created in the 1970s, wearing a blonde wig and makeup and even getting her own driver’s license and credit cards; and Room of One's Own (1990-93), where the viewer looks into a miniature bedroom, and eye movements trigger scenes and sounds from the female “occupant.” In a recent large-scale installation, The Infinity Engine (2014-17), Hershman Leeson addresses bioengineering, with a fully functional replica of a genetics lab that can identify the genetic makeup of viewers through reverse facial-recognition software.

Hershman Leeson said she always wanted to be an artist, and for her, technology was the natural medium to work in.

“I could either compete with the past and do painting and drawing,” she said in an interview at the YBCA. “Or I could look to the future and do something new.”

Hershman Leeson considers all her work political, and examining how society treats women is a constant in her art. 

“Roberta was a vehicle to mirror all the other women in the ’70s who were being rejected and couldn’t get jobs and were told to be blonde and wear makeup,” she said. “She was a way of marking the kind of decline of confidence and possibilities of a single woman. And with Lorna, it was about a woman who was afraid to leave her house because everything she hears from the media is fearful. Lorna lives by remote control, and you control her life.”

Being in the Bay Area, with a culture steeped in technology, has had a big effect on her work, the artist says.

“If I lived anyplace else, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’ve done,” she said. “There are so many programmers here that are available. In Los Angeles, people talk about scripts. In the Bay Area, we talk about programs.”

Hershman Leeson is a visionary, says Lucía Sanromán, YBCA’s director of visual arts who adapted the San Francisco show from the one in Germany. That one was bigger and put together by themes, Sanromán says. For the exhibit at YBCA, she tightened it up and arranged it chronologically, to get the full scope of Hershman Leeson’s work and the progression of her exploration of how identity is shaped by technology and how it influences rights and privacy.

Sanromán first met Hershman Leeson two years ago when she was applying for the job at YBCA. Artist Suzanne Lacy introduced them, telling the curator that Hershman Leeson was a genius. After meeting her, Sanromán agreed and decided that if she got the job at YBCA, she would commit to organizing this show as well as to a series of shows focusing on women artists, including Lacey.

Although her work got acclaim in Europe, for decades, Hershman Leeson says she couldn’t get any attention in San Francisco, which made it difficult to get recognition elsewhere in the States. She just kept working, she says.

“You only have so much time in your life, and what else are you going to do?” she asked. “I don’t make my work for other people—I make it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Sanromán finds Hershman Leeson’s art—as well as her acclaim after so many years—hopeful.

“Anything that helps us deconstruct limits is helpful,” she said about Hershman Leeson’s work. “It’s like if you understand the matrix, you can move through the matrix. And Lynn, she was a female in the ’60s art world, meaning a male world, and she persisted—and that’s a really important thing, that energy of persistence—and she shows us what that means and the rewards of that.”

Along with everything else, Hershman Leeson makes films, including the 2010 documentary !Women, Art, Revolution, which began when she started interviewing women artists in her living room in the late 1960s. The New York Times’ Holland Cotter called it “the most comprehensive documentary ever made on the feminist art movement.”

Hershman Leeson’s newest film, premiering this summer, Tania Libre, explores the aftermath of Cuban artist and activist Tania Bruguera’s period of house arrest. It will screen at the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival, and Hershman Leeson will receive the Persistence of Vision award, which goes to someone working outside narrative features. SFFILM’s senior programmer, Rod Armstrong, says it’s hard to think of anyone who deserves it more.

“She works in so many different fields, and she’s a pioneer in digital cinema,” he said. “I like the way she brings in art and technology to tell female-centric stories with a good deal of wit. She really homed in on the challenges women artist face in male-dominated systems and structures.”

But that’s finally starting to change, Armstrong thinks. Hershman Leeson agrees. Now with this show, she says, museums and galleries are showing interest, and she sees other female artists getting more attention as well.

“Five of the artists in !Women Art Revolution got solo shows after the movie came out,” she said. “It took the next generation to appreciate my work.”

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